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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 17, 2010

PBS looks at 'superstar' dogs, helping paws

Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Michael Rodriguez poses with his dog, Louie, at the Canine Assistants training camp in Atlanta.

DAVID SCOTT | Canine Assistants

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Jennifer Arnold spends her life breeding, training and matching service dogs for people with disabilities or special needs.

It was her own quest for a dog that saw her through her darkest years when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and her father's death dimmed her chance for independence.

"I remember not wanting to leave the house," she said. "I felt very awkward, scared. It surprised me how frightened I was to be left alone. You feel so vulnerable."

Arnold has written a book, "Through a Dog's Eyes," that comes out in September. A PBS documentary based on the book and narrated by Neil Patrick Harris debuts Wednesday.

Harris, star of "How I Met Your Mother" and a dog owner, said he was "wildly moved" by the documentary about the bond between the service canines and the people they help.

"You can see it in the faces of these dogs," he said.

Arnold was 16 and carefree, enjoying life with her mother and eye surgeon father in Atlanta. Then doctors said she had multiple sclerosis and she found herself in a wheelchair. Her father tried to get her a service dog, but she was far down on the waiting list.

So they decided to set up their own service dog training school, Canine Assistants, an academy her father planned to fund by delaying his retirement. Three weeks later, he was hit and killed by a drunken motorcyclist.

But Arnold and her mother didn't abandon the dream. They went to work and raised money for the school. It took 10 years, but they incorporated on Dec. 31, 1991, and started training their first dog in March 1992. Canine Assistants is now among the largest service dog providers in the nation.

"Through a Dog's Eyes" looks at Arnold's treat-based teaching methods. The film focuses on five people, their families and the dogs.

Bryson Casey, 30, of Kansas City, Mo., served in Iraq as a captain with the National Guard. He came home and was in a car crash that left him a quadriplegic. He and his dog, Wagner, bonded instantly.

"Some of the most healed people I've ever known are quadriplegics," said Arnold. She is now 46, her disease is in remission and she is married to the academy's staff veterinarian. Her mother died in 1997.

In the last 20 years, Canine Assistants has given away 1,000 dogs; there is a waiting list of nearly 2,000. The group doesn't charge for the dogs, and will pay for food and vet bills for the life of the dogs, if needed. The recipients are asked to do community service in return.

Canine Assistants breeds its own dogs, and trains rescue and shelter dogs. There are 150 dogs in training year-round.

It costs about $22,000 to train a service dog, Arnold said, and sponsors such as Milk-Bone annually fund between 36 and 50 dogs.

The dogs are lifesavers for the disabled — literally. Arnold related how one dog pulled a person out of a burning house.

"They are all superstars," she said.